Why I Voted for Taiba

Taiba | Benoit


Who was the most talented 3-year-old male to race this year? I will not argue with anyone who says the answer is Epicenter (Not This Time). He won the GII Louisiana Derby, finished second in the GI Kentucky Derby and second in the GI Preakness S. From there, he won the GII Jim Dandy S. and the GI Runhappy Travers S. before an injury kept him from finishing the GI Breeders' Cup Classic. Other than the Classic, he finished first or second in all of his starts and won four graded stakes. Classy, talented, consistent, Epicenter checked a lot of boxes.

But was he the most accomplished 3-year-old male to race in 2022 and what bearing should that have on the Eclipse Awards? That's where this gets tricky. After his win in the Travers, it looked like Epicenter had wrapped up the 3-year-old championship, but he never won again, while Taiba (Gun Runner) finished the year with a flourish. He won the GI Pennsylvania Derby, finished third in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic and, on Monday, won the GI Runhappy Malibu S. at Santa Anita. Earlier in the year, he won the GI Santa Anita Derby, in what was just his second career start.

Some want to argue that Taiba wasn't overly impressive in the Malibu, that he didn't beat a great field and that his time for the seven furlongs was just .24 seconds faster than the fillies went two races earlier in the GI La Brea S. None of that matters, a Grade I win is a Grade I win and, for Taiba, it was his third this year. Epicenter won only one Grade I, the Travers.

So do you go with the best horse (probably Epicenter) or the one who accomplished the most (probably Taiba)? There's no wrong answer here, but I have always given preference to the horses who won the most Grade I races and the score is Taiba 3-Epicenter 1. That's why I filled out my ballot for Taiba.

For a horse to be deserving of a championship they must have succeeded at the highest levels of the sport. The way we keep score is with the graded stakes system and Grade I's are the gold standard when it comes to accomplishments. In this one very important category, Taiba was clearly the winner over Epicenter.

When it comes to head-to-head competition, neither comes out ahead. Epicenter finished in front of Taiba in the Kentucky Derby, but Taiba was making just his third lifetime start and wasn't ready for such a tough assignment. Taiba finished ahead of Epicenter in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but you can't fault Epicenter for being injured. Had trainer Bob Baffert not been suspended by NYRA, Taiba very well could have faced Epicenter in the Travers, a race that could have gone a long way toward proving who was better, but we weren't lucky enough to see that showdown.

A lot of Epicenter fans say he should be rewarded for his body of work. But what about Taiba's body of work? He started seven times and won four races. That's comparable to Epicenter, who ran eight times and also won four starts.

As is usually the case, most other Eclipse categories were no-brainers. There were, however, a couple of races worthy of debate.

I was ready to vote for War Like Goddess (English Channel) after she ran a creditable third against males in the GI Breeders' Cup Turf. That race came after she beat the boys in the GI Joe Hirsch Turf Classic S. But my vote went to Regal Glory (Animal Kingdom). The vote was based on the same logic I used for Taiba-versus-Epicenter. Regal Glory won three Grade I races and War Like Goddess won only one.

In the human categories, Irad Ortiz Jr. (jockey), Todd Pletcher (trainer), Godolphin (owner and breeder) were all obvious winners. The one vote I cast that went against the grain was in the apprentice jockey category. I voted for Vicente Del-Cid, who dominated at Delta Downs and Evangeline Downs. While it's true he didn't ride at top-tier tracks, through Dec. 26 he had 274 wins. Trailing only Irad Ortiz, that's second best in the country and 91 wins ahead of Jeiron Barbosa, second in that category among bugs. It won't be long before Del-Cid is winning races on a regular basis at a top track.

The Eclipse Awards ceremony honoring this year's champions will be held Jan. 26, 2023, at The Breakers Palm Beach in Florida. It's then that we will find out if the 3-year-old title goes to Epicenter or Taiba. Both are deserving winners, it's just that Taiba deserves it a little more.

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